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One is on Facebook October 29, 2010

Posted by Mark Hillary in IT Services, Software.
Tags: , , ,

The British Monarchy recently set up a stall on Facebook. It allows users of the social media service to ‘like’ the royals and subsequently receive updates on engagements, along with additional media such as photographs and video. But the Facebook page has been beset with problems as virtual vandals have filled the page with hatred and abuse, most often directed at the Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall.

The British royal family is no stranger to complaining subjects. The Queen recently received the bad news that the government was suspending payments to her family for a year and then reducing royal funding by 14%. But clearly by using tools such as Facebook, the royals are trying to reach out and connect to subjects, to show that they retain some relevance in a modern world that usually values democratic rights over hereditary rights. The endless online abuse demonstrates that for leaders of any format, it is not quite so easy to open the door to the public and to ask for an exchange of ideas using the Internet.

Most people posting abuse on Facebook are doing it in their real name. This differs from anonymous blog comments, where only an IP address can possibly reveal the identity of the comments posted, and if posted from the free wifi connection in a pub or café then they are almost impossible (at least very difficult) to trace.

How different is this world in which people are prepared to make scandalous statements about leaders, royals, and celebrities using their true identity and does it open up a new chapter in the possibilities for libel in future? If I were being sued for posting libellous statements on Facebook about a celebrity then could I use account hacking as a viable defence, given that automated ‘bots’ often end up hijacking live accounts and posting out unwanted spam messages. With spam being so common, could I use this as a defence?

I’d be interested to hear what the legal experts think because we are entering a new era of online debate, one with more accountability in some ways, but with more get-out clauses than ever before…



1. Leon Deakin - November 23, 2010

Great topic for debate! Although I definitely have less money and no subjects that I am aware of I do know exactly how the Royal Family feels given that I think we are all trying to stay ‘relevant’ when connecting to clients and prospective clients in a rapidly changing world.

As an employment lawyer I have seen a lot of this already in the context of employees posting derogatory or offensive comments about colleagues, management, the company and/or customers and then being subject to disciplinary action as a result. Interestingly in the cases I have handled no one has tried the defence yet that their system was hacked or somehow spam was to blame but surely it is only a matter of time before they do as it sounds as good an excuse as any! In such a case it is likely that whether you can justifiably take action will come down (as always!) to an assessment as to whether you are satisfied, on the balance of probabilities, that the employee in question did post the comment. Of course, how certain you can be will depend on the specific facts of each case but if the employee can show others have easy access to their site/profile they may be able to muddy the waters. To give yourself a fighting chance it therefore definitely sensible to in place a robust email, internet and social media usage policy outlining clearly what is an what is not acceptable so you can try and fall back on this.

2. mark - November 24, 2010

I don’t see how, technically, one would be able to refute such a claim. Although analysis of the profile’s activity might then reveal otherwise.

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